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Progressive Revival

I, among others, have posed the question (here and here) of what the future of Catholic politics might look like–if it has any future–in light of the great splits between and among Catholic voters and leaders during the recent presidential campaign. There seem to be few good answers, and clearly much will depend on the outcome of the current debate with the Republican Party as to whether it will cool down its rhetoric on abortion and gay marriage and other hot-button issues to draw in more voters.

I thought one possible answer was indicated by the election of a dedicated social justice Catholic, Tom Perriello, in Virginia’s generally conservative Fifth CD. While I was in New Orleans this past weekend (pure coincidence, I swear), there was another potential indication, as 41-year-old Anh Cao, a Vietnamese refugee and former Jesuit seminarian (now married with children) defeated the scandal-tainted incumbent, William J. Jefferson–that’d be the Rep. Jefferson who, in a flourish worthy of Illinois politics, allegedly skimmed hundreds of thousands of dollars, some of which was found wrapped in aluminium foil in the freezer of his Capitol Hill office. (Hey, you want to keep it fresh.)

The election was delayed until now by Hurricane Gustav (poor New Orleans), but an equally big shock to the city was that A) Jefferson, an African-American, would lose in his predominantly black district and in a city inured to corruption (it was former governor Edwin Edwards–now serving time in a federal penitentiary–who said, “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy”) and B) that the district would elect a Republican over a Democrat, and a soft-spoken fellow like Cao at that.

But this is apparently a year for miracles. And Cao is a fascinating fellow, as this NYTimes profile shows:

Mr. Cao was a refugee from Vietnam at age 8, a former Jesuit seminarian, a philosophy student with a penchant for Camus and Dostoyevsky, an unknown activist lawyer for one of the least visible immigrant communities here and a Republican in a heavily Democratic district. [snip] He is only a recent convert to the Republican Party, having been a registered independent for most of his adult life, and has no position — at least not one he cares to share yet — on President-elect Barack Obama‘s agenda. His politics seem less a matter of ideology than of low-key temperament and a Jesuit-inspired desire to “help and serve people,” as he put it.

Republican leaders are understandably touting Cao as the “Great GOP Hope,” though particular circumstances may have had as much to do with Cao’s win as anything. Moreover, Lousiana governor Bobby Jindal is supposed to be the New Hope. And as Mark Silk points out, the men are both Asian, both Catholic, both Republican–but quite different.

In a sense the pair are a case study in how and whether a new Catholic politics will emerge, and if the GOP can be the incubator.

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